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Colombia

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Ministry of Interior (MOI) is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers. The MOI continued to hold training sessions on community development strategies for religious groups and societal leaders. Religious leaders expressed continued concern regarding a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. Religious leaders noted their increased involvement with the MOI, including in the planning process for the country’s role as host of the Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief. Religious leaders reported arbitrary enforcement of the tax law, specifically regarding the taxability of donations to religious organizations. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MFA) and the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) 2019 agreement to study the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations went into effect, and the department of Cundinamarca officially enrolled in the study in August. On February 28, the MOI released a new public policy draft decree on religious freedom and worship aimed at increasing coordination with religious groups in an effort to update a 1997 agreement that stipulated which religious organizations might perform government-recognized services. According to the MOI, these decrees would enable religious groups, in addition to the original signatories, to have the authority to engage in activities such as marriages, funeral services, chaplain services, and spiritual assistance. By year’s end, 19 major cities and 14 departments had adopted new public policies on religious freedom, up from 14 and 11 at the close of 2019.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continued to report that illegal armed groups threatened and physically attacked leaders and members of religious organizations in many areas of the country. The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) reported members of illegal armed groups killed three leaders of religious organizations and committed acts of violence against 16 others that resulted in injury.

The Jewish community reported continued anti-Semitic comments on social media sites, including some that questioned Israel’s right to exist. During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation. Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement. The Catholic Church in the country and other religious organizations helped the Association of Food Banks of Colombia distribute more than 33 million pounds of food during the COVID-19 pandemic to all in need regardless of religion.

U.S. embassy officials raised issues of religious freedom, including conscientious objection to military service and the effect of illegal armed actors on religious practice, with government officials. Embassy officials met with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the AGO, the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI, and members of congress. Embassy officials discussed with the MOI public policies on religious freedom and worship, including support for victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations and the importance of ensuring indigenous groups were included in government-sponsored events on religious tolerance and inclusion. Embassy officials also met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish and Muslim communities, Catholics, evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Baha’is, Greek Orthodox, and members of indigenous groups. In these meetings, embassy officials discussed issues related to the government’s policies on religious freedom, conscientious objection, anti-Semitism, and government support for religious organizations providing services for trafficking victims, internally displaced persons, and Venezuelan migrants and refugees.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 49.1 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2017 survey by the NGO Latinobarometer, 73 percent of the population is Catholic, 14 percent Protestant, and 11 percent atheist or agnostic. Groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include nondenominational worshipers or members of other religious groups, including Jews, Muslims, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the Church of God Ministry of Jesus Christ International, Mennonites, Baha’is, and Buddhists. The Colombian Confederation of Jewish Communities (CJCC) estimates there are approximately 5,500 Jews. According to Baha’i leaders, there are approximately 60,000 followers; a Buddhist representative estimates there are 9,000 adherents in the country. There are between 85,000 and 100,000 Muslims, according to a 2018 Pew research study. There is also a small population of adherents to animism and various syncretic beliefs.

Some religious groups are concentrated in certain geographical regions. Most of those who blend Catholicism with elements of African animism are Afro-Colombians and reside on the Pacific coast. Most Jews reside in major cities (approximately 70 percent in Bogota), most Muslims on the Caribbean coast, and most adherents of indigenous animistic religions in remote rural areas. A small Taoist community is located in a mountainous region of Santander Department.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and the right to profess one’s religious beliefs. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. There is no official state church or religion, but the law says the state “is not atheist or agnostic, nor indifferent to Colombians’ religious sentiment.” The constitution states all religions and churches are equal before the law. A 1998 Constitutional Court ruling upholds the right of traditional authorities to enforce the observation of and participation in traditional religious beliefs and practices on indigenous reserves. Subsequent rulings refer to the 1998 decision to reaffirm the right of indigenous governors to prohibit the practice of certain religions on indigenous reserves. A concordat between the Holy See and the government, recognized and enforced by law, recognizes marriages performed by the Catholic Church, allows the Church to provide chaplaincy services, and exempts members of the Catholic clergy from compulsory public service, including military service. According to a court ruling, these provisions are constitutional as long as they apply to all religious groups, but the legal framework is not in place to extend them to all religious groups. The law prohibits any official government reference to a religious affiliation for the country.

The MOI is responsible for formally recognizing churches, religious denominations, religious federations and confederations, and associations of religious ministers, as well as keeping a public registry of religious entities. Entities formally recognized by the MOI may then confer this recognition, called “extended public recognition,” to affiliated groups sharing the same beliefs. The application process requires submission of a formal request and basic organizational information, including copies of the organization’s constitution and an estimate of the number of members. The government considers a religious group’s total membership, its “degree of acceptance within society,” and other factors, such as the organization’s statutes and its required behavioral norms, when deciding whether to grant it formal recognition. The MOI is authorized to reject requests that are incomplete or do not fully comply with established requirements. The MOI provides a free, web-based registration process for religious and faith-based organizations seeking recognition. Formally recognized entities may collect funds and receive donations, establish religious education institutions, and perform religious services, excluding marriages. Unregistered entities may perform religious activities without penalty but may not collect funds or receive donations.

The state recognizes as legally binding marriages performed by the Catholic Church, the Jewish community, and 13 non-Catholic Christian denominations that are signatories to a 1997 public law agreement. The agreement authorizes these religious groups to engage in activities such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance in prisons, hospitals, military facilities, and educational institutions. Under this agreement, members of religious groups that are neither signatories to the agreement nor affiliated with signatories must marry in a civil ceremony for the state to recognize the marriage. Religious groups not signatories to the 1997 public law may not provide chaplaincy services or conduct state-recognized marriages.

The constitution recognizes the right of parents to choose the education of their child, including religious instruction. The law states religious education shall be offered in accordance with laws protecting religious freedom, and it identifies the Ministry of Education as responsible for establishing guidelines for teaching religion within the public school curriculum. Religious groups, including those that have not acceded to the public law agreement, may establish their own schools, provided they comply with ministry requirements. A Constitutional Court ruling obligates schools to implement alternative accommodations for students based on their religion, which could include students at religious institutions opting out of prayers or religious lessons. The government does not provide subsidies for private schools run by religious organizations.

The law imposes a penalty of one to three years in prison and a fine of 10 to 15 times the monthly minimum wage, approximately 8.3 million to 12.4 million Colombian pesos ($2,400 to $3,600), for violations of religious freedom, including discrimination based on religion. The penal code also prohibits discrimination based on religious beliefs, including physical or moral harm.

A Constitutional Court ruling states that citizens, including members of indigenous communities, may be exempt from compulsory military service if they can demonstrate a serious and permanent commitment to religious principles that prohibit the use of force. Conscientious objectors who are exempt from military service may complete alternative, government-selected public service. The law requires that regional interagency commissions (Interdisciplinary Commissions on Conscientious Objection, under the Ministry of Defense) evaluate requests for conscientious objector status; commission members include representatives from the armed forces, the Inspector General’s Office, and medical, psychological, and legal experts. By law, the National Commission of Conscientious Objection reviews any cases not resolved at the regional level. The law requires that every battalion or larger military unit designate an officer in charge of processing conscientious objector exemptions.

According to the law, all associations, foundations, and corporations declared as nonprofit organizations, including foundations supported by churches or religious organizations recognized by the MOI, must pay taxes. Churches and religious organizations recognized by the MOI are tax-exempt, but they must report their incomes and expenses to the National Tax and Customs Authority. According to a Constitutional Court ruling, the state may not seize the assets of non-Catholic churches in legal proceedings if the church meets the requirements for formal government recognition.

Foreign missionaries must possess a special visa, valid for up to two years. The MFA issues visas to foreign missionaries and religious group administrators who are members of religious organizations officially recognized and registered with the MOI. When applying for a visa, foreign missionaries must have a certificate from either the MOI or church authorities confirming registration of their religious group with the MFA. Alternatively, they may produce a certificate issued by a registered religious group confirming the applicant’s membership and mission in the country. The visa application also requires a letter issued by a legal representative of the religious group stating the organization accepts full financial responsibility for the expenses of the applicant and family, including funds for return to their country of origin or last country of residence. Applicants must explain the purpose of the proposed sojourn and provide proof of economic means. A Constitutional Court ruling stipulates that no group may impose religious conversion on members of indigenous communities.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

The MOI reported there were 8,214 formally recognized religious entities in the country as of September, compared with 7,763 at the end of 2019. It received 393 applications for formal recognition of religious entities, compared with 771 in 2019; approved 343, compared with 481 in 2019; and deferred or denied 12, compared with 32 in 2019. The MOI stated that the deferred and denied petitions were because the applying entity failed to meet the legal requirements and/or because it failed to provide missing information during the year. The MOI stated it continued to review the remaining applications. According to the MOI, 100 percent of the applications were from evangelical Christian churches. The MOI continued to give applicants who submitted incomplete applications or incorrect supporting documents 30 days to bring their applications into compliance. If the MOI deemed an application incomplete, it could deny the application; however, the applying organization could resubmit an application at any time, and the MOI indicated there was no waiting period to reapply.

On February 28, the MOI released a new public policy draft decree on religious freedom and worship aimed at increasing coordination with religious groups and updating a 1997 agreement to include additional religious groups. According to the MOI, the draft decree would enable religious groups not included in the original signatories to have the authority to engage in activities such as marriages, funeral services, and spiritual assistance. The government made available the draft for public comment for 15 days on the MOI website. After receiving no comments, the MOI moved the draft to the Minister of Interior for signature, where it awaited at year’s end before proceeding to the President for signature. The MOI released for public comment a second related decree to increase access for religious organizations to perform chaplain services. At year’s end, this draft decree had received no comments and was awaiting signatures from the Minister of Interior and the President.

The 2019 agreement between the government and UNDP to study the social contribution and sustainable development goals of religious organizations went into effect and in August, Cundinamarca became the first department to become part of the study. According to the MOI, it intended to expand the study to the country’s remaining 31 departments. On October 28, the MOI launched a new Academic Network for the Respect and Guarantee of Religious Freedom whose goal was to engage university researchers in investigating religious tolerance in the country.

According to the MOI and religious leaders, the ministry continued implementing its public policy goal of raising awareness of the role of religious groups in supporting victims of conflict and other vulnerable populations, as well as strengthening interreligious cooperation and tolerance at the local level through structured interfaith dialogues and technical assistance. The MOI led 14 virtual and in-person workshops to assist local authorities and religious organizations on various aspects of the policy, with a focus on taxes, religious facilities, and education. The workshops also focused on increasing religious tolerance, postconflict victim support, and outreach to vulnerable populations. The MOI also launched a new program in August that held 25 virtual workshops to train religious leaders and public servants in constructing and managing social projects.

By year’s end, 19 major cities had adopted new public policies on religious freedom, compared with 14 major cities and 11 departments in 2019. The policies included public campaigns to promote religious tolerance and nondiscrimination, as well as efforts to strengthen communication between religious groups and government institutions at the national and regional levels. Religious freedom and respect for religious groups were included in new territorial development plans for 2020-23 in 16 departments and 24 municipalities. The national outreach programs continued to prioritize integrating the religious community into public policy discussions, including on how to respond to the humanitarian crisis in Venezuela, the increasing number of Venezuelans residing in the country, and how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to religious groups, individuals continued to have difficulty obtaining exemptions from military service on religious grounds. Religious leaders expressed continued concern regarding a law requiring interagency commissions to evaluate requests for conscientious objector status. Religious organizations reported mixed enforcement of the conscientious objector law, stating that some objectors were still required to serve in the military, although they were exempt from carrying a weapon. The Ministry of Defense reported that by year’s end, it had approved 85 of 117 applications seeking conscientious objector status on religious grounds.

Religious leaders of Catholic and Protestant churches continued to report the parameters of the tax law governing religious organizations were not clear and that enforcement was arbitrary because the tax-related responsibilities for religious organizations remained unclear. The Episcopal Conference of Colombia, representing the Catholic Church, continued to express concern that taxes on religious nonprofit organizations were limiting those organizations’ ability to deliver social services in their communities.

The CJCC continued to express concern that some political figures associated with the country’s self-defined left-leaning political parties used anti-Semitic rhetoric during political campaigns, referring to Israeli military operations in Palestinian-controlled territory as a new version of the Holocaust. Political analysts said such rhetoric was not representative of the views of left-leaning parties.

The National Police, through the Protection and Special Services Directorate, continued to provide security for religious sites and leaders deemed at risk.

The country observed July 4 as the National Day of Religious Freedom. In connection with the observance, the MOI and regional governments held forums and other events to educate the public on the significance of the holiday and new public policy and to build bridges with religious organizations. On July 4, President Ivan Duque Marquez met virtually with representatives of the country’s main religious communities and organizations. During the meeting, he highlighted what he said was the progress achieved by the country in the field of religious freedom, and he said that the defense of freedom of religion is intrinsic to the democratic society to which the country aspires.

The government hosted the first Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief on October 22-23. The first day of the virtual event brought together experts and leaders from various religious organizations in the Western Hemisphere to discuss challenges to freedom of religion or belief. The second day featured a ministerial during which ministers of foreign affairs made statements on the promotion and guarantee of the right to freedom of religion or belief. Vice Minister of Interior Carlos Alberto Baena Lopez highlighted the government’s commitment to protecting religious freedom, while Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Adriana Mejia Hernandez said the country took seriously the responsibility to protect the rights of religious minorities, adding that any threat to freedom of religion was a threat to democracy. Religious leaders said they were pleased with their increased involvement with the MOI in planning the country’s role as forum host.

An interagency working group formed in 2018 with the participation of several religious organizations met virtually to discuss the role of such organizations in the internal peace and reconciliation process and to plan for the Hemispheric Forum on Freedom of Religion or Belief. It also discussed the response of religious organizations to the crisis in Venezuela.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

The Jewish community again reported anti-Semitic comments on social media sites, including by a communist group that posted, “Wealthy Jews represent exploitative capitalism.”

According to a representative of the Abou Bakir Alsiddiq Mosque in Bogota, unlike in previous years when unidentified individuals vandalized the mosque, most recently in June 2019, there were no reported acts of vandalism during the year.

During the year, the Catholic Church, Mennonite Church, and other religious groups continued to conduct programs focused on religious tolerance, land rights, peace, and reconciliation. Faith-based and interfaith NGOs, including DiPaz and the Inter-Ecclesiastical Commission on Justice and Peace, continued to promote religious freedom and tolerance through their programs and community engagement.

The Catholic Church and other religious organizations helped the Association of Food Banks of Colombia distribute more than 15 million kilograms (more than 33 million pounds) of food during the COVID-19 pandemic to all in need regardless of religion.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials discussed conscientious objection to military service, the tax law, and the effects of the actions of guerrilla and illegal armed groups on religious freedom with the Human Rights Directorate of the MFA, the International Affairs Directorate of the AGO, and the Religious Affairs Directorate of the MOI. They also discussed the importance of ensuring indigenous groups were included in government-sponsored events on religious tolerance and inclusion. Embassy officials also met with members of congress across several political parties to discuss government financial support for NGOs, including religious affiliated organizations that provide short- and long-term housing for victims of human trafficking, the homeless, and Venezuelan refugees and migrants.

The embassy highlighted on social media U.S. collaboration with the government and civil society to promote respect for religious pluralism and diversity of belief, to condemn anti-Semitism, and to highlight local events promoting religious freedom and tolerance. Embassy representatives participated in religious freedom events. On September 14, the Ambassador spoke about the role of freedom of religious expression in building a durable peace at the Combating Anti-Semitism event hosted by the Latino Coalition for Israel.

Embassy officials met with representatives from a wide range of religious groups, including the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestants, Baptists, Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Baha’is, Witness for Peace, the CJCC, the Greek Orthodox Church, Bogota’s Muslim community, representatives from a coalition of indigenous religions, and other faith-based NGOs, including Global Ministries, the Colombian Evangelical Council’s Peace Commission, and CONFELIREC. They discussed government support for religious organizations providing services for internally displaced persons, victims of human trafficking, and Venezuelan migrants and refugees, as well as the organizations’ response to combating religious intolerance and support for the 2016 peace accord that ended the conflict between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Religious community leaders outlined ways in which their organizations were participating in peacebuilding efforts.

El Salvador

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion and states all persons are equal before the law. It prohibits discrimination based on religion. The constitution grants automatic official recognition to the Roman Catholic Church and states other religious groups may also apply for official recognition through registration. Some clergy and faith-based nongovernmental organization (NGO) workers said police and other government agents continued to arbitrarily detain, question, or search young congregants and youth leaders because of their ministry work with active and former gang members. According to sources, while many religious communities focused on education and youth development programs, particularly in the area of violence prevention, intimidation of religious individuals did not appear to be intended as persecution based on their religion. During the year, President Nayib Bukele, of Palestinian background, continued to be the target of anti-Muslim commentary, mainly on Twitter, by some of his political opposition. On September 11, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 133 years and four months in prison for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuit priests at the Central American University. On October 29, the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court in El Salvador dismissed the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes for their alleged roles in those killings. According to press reports, this ruling favored former President Alfredo Cristiani, accused of being an intellectual author of the killings.

On February 7, the daily newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported the First Sentencing Court of Sonsonate sentenced Abraham Mestizo, a former sacristan accused of killing Catholic priest Cecilio Perez Cruz, to 25 years in prison for aggravated homicide. Although a letter found near the priest’s body suggested that the MS-13 gang had killed the priest for not paying extortion fees, the court ruled out any gang involvement. On September 9, unknown assailants killed three men who were praying near the Cristo Te Llama Church, an evangelical Protestant church in San Martin, San Salvador Department. Leaders of Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and other Christian groups continued to report that members of their churches could not reach their respective congregations due to fear of gang crime and violence. According to widespread media reports, gang activity continued to create security concerns at a national level, which affected the general population, including members of religious groups, but was not based on religious discrimination.

During a meeting with the ombudsman for human rights on October 9, U.S. embassy officials continued to highlight the importance of government officials carrying out their official duties regardless of their religious beliefs or affiliation. The Ambassador tweeted in support of International Religious Freedom Day on October 27. In meetings with Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Muslim, and Baha’i groups during the year, embassy officials continued to discuss the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories, and they stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.5 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a January survey by the University of Central America’s Institute of Public Opinion, 41.3 percent of the population identifies as Catholic, 37.2 percent as evangelical Protestant, and 18 percent with no religious affiliation. Approximately 2.8 percent state “other,” which includes Anglican Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Muslims, Baha’is, Jews, Buddhists, and the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. A small segment of the population adheres to indigenous religious beliefs, with some mixing of these beliefs with Christianity and Islam. Muslim leaders estimate there are approximately 20,000 Muslims.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of religion. It states all persons are equal before the law and prohibits discrimination based on religion. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights monitors the state of religious freedom in the country, including issuing special reports and accepting petitions from the public for violation of the free exercise of religion.

The penal code imposes criminal sentences of one to three years on individuals who publicly offend or insult the religious beliefs of others, or damage or destroy religious objects. The law defines an offense as an action that prevents or disrupts the free exercise of religion, publicly disavows religious traditions, or publicly insults an individual’s beliefs or religious dogma. Sentences increase to four to eight years when individuals commit such acts to gain media attention. Repeat offenders may face prison sentences of three to five years.

The constitution states members of the clergy may not occupy the positions of President, cabinet ministers, vice ministers, Supreme Court justices, judges, governors, attorney general, public defender, and other senior government positions. Members of the clergy may not belong to political parties. The electoral code requires judges of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and members of municipal councils to be laypersons.

A 2014 law restricts support of and interaction with gangs, including by clergy members, and a 2016 law defines gangs as terrorist organizations. Rehabilitation programs and ministry activities for gang members, however, are legal.

The constitution allows religious groups to apply for official recognition by registering with the government. It grants automatic official recognition to the Catholic Church and exempts it from registration requirements and from government financial oversight. Religious groups may operate without registering, but registration provides tax-exempt status and facilitates activities requiring official permits, such as building places of worship. To register, a religious group must apply through the Office of the Director General for Nonprofit Associations and Foundations (DGFASFL) in the Ministry of Governance. The group must present its constitution and bylaws describing the type of organization, location of its offices, its goals and principles, requirements for membership, functions of its ruling bodies, and assessments or dues. The DGFASFL analyzes the group’s constitution and bylaws to ensure both comply with the law. Upon approval, the government publishes the group’s constitution and bylaws in the official gazette. The DGFASFL does not maintain records on religious groups once it approves their status, and there are no requirements for renewal of registration.

By law, the Ministry of Governance has authority to register, regulate, and oversee the finances of NGOs and all religious groups except the Catholic Church, due to its special legal recognition under the constitution. Foreign religious groups must obtain special residence visas for religious activities, including proselytizing, and may not proselytize while on visitor or tourist visas. Religious groups must be registered in order to be eligible for their members to receive this special residence visa for religious activities.

Public education, as funded by the government, is secular and there is no religious education component. The constitution grants the right to establish private schools, including schools run by religious groups, which operate without government support or funding. Parents choose whether their children receive religious education in private schools. Public schools may not deny admittance to any student based on religion. All private schools, religiously affiliated or not, must meet the same academic standards to obtain Ministry of Education approval.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Some clergy and faith-based NGO workers said police and other government agents continued to arbitrarily detain, question, or search young congregants and youth leaders because of their ministry work with active and former gang members. According to these observers, there was no indication the government actions were motivated by discrimination based on religious beliefs, but rather, because of the close interaction of some religious groups with gangs. Some religious leaders stated they continued to avoid violence-prevention programs and rehabilitation efforts, fearing prosecution or being perceived as sympathetic to gangs, even though courts had ruled that rehabilitation efforts were not illegal under the constitution. A religious worker operating a youth center in a neighborhood with heavy gang presence said she closed down a project working with gang members due to complications with the police. Although they said it was not an issue of religious discrimination, clergy again said police sometimes mistakenly detained young congregants and youth leaders from several Christian denominations as suspected gang members.

According to the Ministry of Governance, there were 122 requests for registration of religious groups during the year. Of these, the ministry approved 53, and 69 were pending at year’s end. Government officials said the COVID-19 pandemic caused the decline in requests and approvals of registrations because several officials from the ministry teleworked and did not have access to all of the relevant documents. Furthermore, the ministry prioritized its focus on the pandemic. The Ministry of Governance reported that although the registration process was available electronically, many religious groups did not present the required documents in a timely manner. According to the ministry, delays in registration approvals occurred because religious groups were first required to obtain legal entity documentation and the paperwork they submitted to the ministry was incorrect or incomplete.

In some prisons, the government continued to encourage religious organizations to work with prisoners to persuade them to renounce gang life. The government also continued to consult with, and jointly implement rehabilitation and reinsertion programs with, faith-based organizations.

On February 24, former Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) President Gustavo Lopez described President Bukele as a Muslim, tweeting, “Why does the President attack his adversaries? As a Muslim (I respect freedom of religion!) he believes himself to be the sultan or emperor of his clan (his followers) he will protect them even if they are inept; the rest of us are infidels (not pure). He attacks, lies, and wants to burn us alive!! Watch out.” The tweet was a reference to a rumor Bukele’s political opposition circulated during the 2019 presidential election campaign, reportedly in an effort to damage his credibility, by claiming Bukele had lied when he said he adhered to no specific religious affiliation.

On May 22, ARENA legislator Ricardo Velasquez Parker also linked President Bukele to the rumor of his being Muslim, tweeting, “Christians in El Salvador are the majority and we have been exhorted by preachers to have a personal relationship with Jesus our Lord, praying at all times. We are not Muslims, nor will we celebrate #RAMADAN tomorrow, Saturday, May 23, even if Nayib Bukele decrees it.” President Bukele had decreed May 24 as a National Day of Prayer, asking for voluntary prayers “for God to heal our land and allow us to defeat the pandemic that is hitting the entire world.”

Alvaro Rafael Saravia Merino, a former military captain with an outstanding arrest warrant for the killing Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass, remained a fugitive. On March 4, the Fourth Investigative Court in El Salvador heard the testimony of Spanish lawyer Almudena Bernabeu, who had previously testified in 2004 against Saravia Merino in a civil judgment in Fresno, California. Bernabeu said witness testimony from the 2004 trial established that Saravia Merino and three others participated in a meeting to plan the killing of Archbishop Romero. At year’s end, the case remained pending.

On September 11, Spain’s highest criminal court, Audencia Nacional, sentenced former Salvadoran army colonel Inocente Orlando Montano to 133 years and four months in prison (26 years, eight months, and one day for each killing) for planning and ordering the November 1989 killings of five Spanish Jesuits at the Central American University in San Salvador. Because the five Jesuits were Spanish citizens, two human rights organizations filed a case in a Spanish court in 2008 against former President Cristiani and 20 military members. The Spanish court said the killings “were contrived, planned, agreed to, and ordered by members of the high command of the Armed Forces, a body to which Montano belonged as Deputy Minister of Public Security.” The Audencia Nacional did not include former President Cristiani in this trial because the government of El Salvador refused to extradite him to Spain. The case against Cristiani and six senior military commanders for their alleged roles in the Jesuit killings remained pending in the Supreme Court at year’s end.

On October 29, La Prensa Grafica reported the Criminal Chamber of the Supreme Court dismissed the case against former generals Juan Orlando Zepeda and Francisco Helena Fuentes, accused of being the intellectual authors of the 1989 killings and denied the possibility of a new trial. According to press reports, this ruling favored former President Cristiani in the pending case for his alleged role in the killings.

According to the Attorney General’s Office, authorities did not prosecute anyone under the penal code for publicly offending or insulting the religious beliefs of others, compared with one prosecution in 2018, which remained under investigation. On October 9, the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights again reported it did not receive notice of any cases of alleged violations of religious freedom.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

In August, Catholic priest Ricardo Antonio Cortez was shot and killed while driving on a road in the southeastern part of the country. While the reason behind the killing was unknown, there was no indication it was a robbery, and press reported that priests believed his killing could have been an effort to intimidate the Catholic Church.

On February 7, La Prensa Grafica reported the First Sentencing Court of Sonsonate sentenced Abraham Mestizo, a former sacristan accused of killing Catholic priest Cecilio Perez Cruz, to 25 years in prison for aggravated homicide. In May 2019, Perez Cruz was found dead inside the parish house in San Jose de la Majada, in Juayan Municipality, Sonsonate Department. Although a letter found near the priest’s body suggested that MS-13 had killed the priest for not paying extortion fees, the court ruled out any gang involvement, stating Mestizo had written the letter to mislead authorities.

At a March 29 press conference marking the two-year anniversary of the 2018 detention and killing of Father Walter Vasquez Jimenez while he was en route to Mass, Archbishop of San Salvador Jose Luis Escobar Alas called for clarity and justice on the case from the Attorney General’s Office and the National Civilian Police (PNC). On August 8, the international news agency EFE reported authorities had not detained any suspects.

On September 9, unknown assailants killed three men who were praying near the Cristo Te Llama (Christ Calls You) Church, an evangelical Protestant church in San Martin, San Salvador Department. According to the newspaper El Diario de Hoy, two of the victims were allegedly former 18th Street gang members. The church’s congregation included many retired gang members, and the parishioners said the victims frequently attended the church.

Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and leaders of other Christian denominations continued to state clergy sometimes could not reach their respective congregations in MS-13 and Barrio 18 (also known as 18th Street) gang-controlled territory throughout the country due to fear of crime and violence. According to media reports, NGOs, and law enforcement representatives, individuals not associated with religious groups also faced the same fears and limitations while transiting gang-controlled areas. Across the country, gang members continued to control access in and around communities, and there were reports they displaced church leaders and charity groups with religious affiliations. Pastors reported that congregants, as was the case with the general population, sometimes could not attend religious services if they had to cross ever-shifting gang boundaries. Pastors said both MS-13 and Barrio 18 continued to stop strangers, examine their national identification cards, verify the address, and deny access to anyone they considered to be an outsider.

According to law enforcement representatives, gang members continued to extort organizations with known funding streams, including religious groups, demanding payments in exchange for allowing them to operate in some territories. Reports of criminals targeting churches, stealing religious relics and other valuable cultural items, and violently assaulting parishioners continued.

On January 18, La Prensa Grafica reported two women entered the Nuestra Senora de Dolores Church in the city of Izalco, Sonsonate Department, sedated a sacristan, and stole an image of the baby Jesus from the main altar. According to church leaders, the 106-year-old image was of cultural value, and it was the third robbery in less than a month. Authorities opened an investigation into the incident.

According to La Prensa Grafica, the PNC dismantled a methamphetamine laboratory operated by MS-13 gang members in Mejicanos, San Salvador Department. The gang members manufactured the drugs in homes disguised as churches in efforts to mislead the PNC.

Media reported, and religious leaders also stated, former gang members who joined evangelical Protestant churches gained both gang respect and endorsement, because religious devotion was a way out of gang membership from which there was otherwise no exit. According to law enforcement representatives, gang membership was previously understood to be a lifelong commitment; however, through religious devotion and the structure, acceptance, and support of a church, some gang leaders appeared to have respected the decision of some members to leave the gang. In these cases, gang leaders reportedly monitored the former gang members to ensure they were routinely attending church services. Law enforcement representatives reported some gangs began forcing these former gang members to return to the criminal structure despite their religious practice, but this change was likely localized and determined by each gang clique in control of specific territories. According to law enforcement representatives, the gangs used death threats to these former gang members or threats to their family to force their return to the gang.

In June, according to a press statement, the Conference of Catholic Bishops of El Salvador condemned social media attacks, primarily from supporters of the President, on Cardinal Gregorio Chavez for his calling for greater dialogue among government representatives and transparency in the management of funds used to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. According to media, Cardinal Chavez called for dialogue because disagreement between the President and the General Assembly had led to the expiration of COVID-19 restrictions while confirmed cases were rising in the country. Social media postings called Cardinal Chavez a traitor and corrupt for having criticized the President and for purportedly having taken the side of the private sector against the government and the people. In their statement, the bishops said they considered the social media attacks on Cardinal Chavez to be attacks on the Church as well.

According to the Pew Research Center’s 11th annual study of restrictions on religion, issued in November but covering 2018, El Salvador had the largest increase in social hostilities among countries in the Americas. The social hostilities index measured acts of religious hostility by private individuals and societal organizations or groups.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

On October 9, embassy officials discussed with the ombudsman for human rights the importance of government officials carrying out their duties to protect the rights of all individuals, including religious freedom, regardless of the officials’ personal religious affiliation or beliefs. On October 27, the Ambassador tweeted, “Religious freedom is a fundamental freedom and a human right,” and in support of International Religious Freedom Day, he called for an end to religious persecution.

During the year, embassy officials met with religious leaders from the evangelical Protestant, Anglican Episcopalian, and Catholic Churches, as well as the Baha’i Faith, to discuss religious freedom issues and the difficulties religious groups experienced in attempting to reach followers in gang-controlled territories. Embassy officials stressed the importance of filing complaints with law enforcement agencies and the ombudsman for human rights.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including freedom of worship and the free expression of all beliefs. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Roman Catholic Church. Non-Catholic religious groups must register with the Ministry of Government to enter into contracts or receive tax-exempt status. Following the killing of indigenous spiritual leader Domingo Choc, President Alejandro Giammattei condemned the killing and met with members of Choc’s spiritual council to hear their grievances. The Committee on the Designation of Sacred Sites (COLUSAG), which registers sites as sacred places for Mayan spirituality, said its mission was hindered during the year after President Giammattei announced the closure in April of the Secretariat of Peace (SEPAZ), which had provided COLUSAG with a meeting place and an organizational structure in the government. After the announcement of SEPAZ’s closure, COLUSAG moved temporarily to the Presidential Secretariat for Planning and Public Policy Coordination. In August, civil society groups and political parties challenged the constitutionality of closing SEPAZ. On December 29, Mayan leaders from COLUSAG protested SEPAZ’s closure and called upon the legislature to legally protect sacred indigenous sites. At year’s end, the Constitutional Court did not issue a decision on SEPAZ’s future and the government did not clarify COLUSAG’s status. In November, lawmakers proposed a budget that would cut funding for the national human rights office and other social programs. The proposal triggered widespread demonstrations, including protesters setting fire to Congress. The country’s Catholic bishops were among several civil society groups that urged President Giammattei to veto the budget bill and called for calm. Lawmakers withdrew the proposed budget after the protests. Non-Catholic groups stated some municipal authorities continued to discriminate against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection.

On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten Department, beat and burned to death Mayan spiritual leader and herbalist Domingo Choc after accusing him of using witchcraft to kill a man a few days earlier. Videos of Choc’s killing circulated on social media, and public outrage grew quickly. On June 9, National Civil Police (PNC) arrested several villagers for the killing; they awaited trial at year’s end. Mayan spiritual leaders reported an increase in violent acts and societal prejudice against their community following the killing. Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection and human rights work. According to reports from the Archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, at least five priests received serious threats during the year.

The U.S. embassy regularly engaged with government officials, civil society organizations, and religious groups to discuss issues of religious freedom, including threats against Catholic clergy and the reported lack of access to Mayan spiritual sites. Embassy officials emphasized the value of tolerance and respect for religious diversity, including for religious minorities, in meetings with various civil society and religious groups. Embassy officials also emphasized the need to denounce and prevent violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 17.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a 2016 survey by ProDatos, approximately 45 percent of the population is Catholic and 42 percent Protestant. Approximately 11 percent of the population professes no religious affiliation. Groups together constituting approximately 2 percent of the population include Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, and adherents of the Mayan, Xinca, and Afro-Indigenous Garifuna religions.

Non-Catholic Christian groups include Full Gospel Church, Assemblies of God, Central American Church, Prince of Peace Church, independent evangelical Protestant groups, Baptists, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Russian Orthodox and Seventh-day Adventists.

Catholics and Protestants are present throughout the country, with adherents among all major ethnic groups. According to leaders of Mayan spiritual organizations, as well as Catholic and Protestant clergy, many indigenous Catholics and some indigenous Protestants practice some form of syncretism with indigenous spiritual rituals, mainly in the eastern city of Livingston and in the southern region of the country.

According to Buddhist community representatives, there are between 8,000 and 11,000 Buddhists, composed principally of individuals from the Chinese immigrant community. Muslim leaders stated there are approximately 2,000 Muslims of mostly Palestinian origin, who reside primarily in Guatemala City, where there are three mosques. According to local Ahmadi Muslims, there is a small Ahmadi community of approximately 70 members. According to Jewish community leadership, approximately 1,000 Jews live in the country.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion, including the free expression of all beliefs and the right to practice a religion or belief, in public and private. The constitution recognizes the distinct legal personality of the Catholic Church through a concordat with the Holy See.

The constitution does not require religious groups to register for the purpose of worship, but non-Catholic religious groups must register for legal status to conduct activities such as renting or purchasing property and entering into contracts, and to receive tax-exempt status and tax exemptions for properties used for worship, religious education, and social assistance. To register, a group must file with the Ministry of Government (similar to a Ministry of Interior) a copy of its bylaws, which must reflect an intention to pursue religious objectives, and a list of its initial membership with at least 25 members. The ministry may reject a registration application if the ministry believes the group does not appear to be devoted to a religious objective, appears intent on undertaking illegal activities, or engages in activities that could threaten public order. All religious groups must obtain the permission of the respective municipal authorities for construction and repair of properties and for holding public events, consistent with requirements for nonreligious endeavors.

The constitution protects the rights of indigenous groups to practice their traditions and forms of cultural expression, including religious rites. The law permits Mayan spiritual groups to conduct religious ceremonies at Mayan historical sites on government-owned property free of charge, with written permission from the Ministry of Culture.

The criminal code penalizes with one-month to one-year sentences the interruption of religious celebrations, “offending” a religion, which the law leaves vague, and the desecration of burial sites or human remains; however, charges are seldom filed under these laws. The constitution provides for freedom of expression and freedom of religion, emphasizing, “Every person has right to practice their religion or belief in public within the limits of public order and the respect due to the beliefs of other creeds.”

According to the constitution, no member of the clergy of any religion may serve as President, Vice President, government minister, or judge.

The law guarantees at least one “religious space, according to [the prison’s] capacity” in each prison. Chaplain services are limited to Catholic chaplains and nondenominational (usually evangelical) Christian chaplains. Prisoners of minority religious groups do not have guaranteed access to spiritual counselors from their faith.

The constitution permits, but does not require, religious instruction in public schools. There is no national framework for determining the nature or content of religious instruction. In general, public schools have no religious component in the curriculum. Private religious schools are permitted and are found in all areas of the country. Religious instruction is allowed, but attendance is optional, in private religious schools.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain tourist visas, which authorities issue for renewable periods of three months. After renewing their tourist visas once, foreign missionaries may apply for temporary residence for up to two years; the residential permit is renewable.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Following the June killing of indigenous spiritual leader Domingo Choc, President Giammattei met with members of Choc’s spiritual council to hear their grievances. On June 19, Giammattei convened representatives of the Catholic Church and evangelical Protestant churches so that they could collectively speak out against discrimination of indigenous religious practices. Giammattei released a video with local leaders in Peten, asking for greater interfaith understanding and an end to violence based on religion. The government’s human rights ombudsman (PDH) issued a series of condemnations of the crime. President Giammattei stated on Twitter his solidarity and condolences to the family of Choc and his determination to bring those responsible to justice.

COLUSAG, which registers sites as sacred places for Mayan spirituality, said its mission was hindered during the year after President Giammattei announced the closure of SEPAZ in April, which had provided COLUSAG a meeting place and an organizational structure in the government. The President said SEPAZ, created shortly after the end of the civil conflict in 1996, had been maintained illegally by previous administrations. After the announcement of SEPAZ’s closure, COLUSAG moved temporarily to the Presidential Secretariat for Planning and Public Policy Coordination. On August 7, civil society groups and the political parties WINAQ (meaning human in Mayan culture) and Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity challenged the constitutionality of SEPAZ’s closure. On December 29, a small group of Mayan leaders from COLUSAG protested outside the National Palace in Guatemala City during the official commemoration of the 24th anniversary of the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords, which ended a 36-year civil conflict in 1996. Demonstrators protested the President’s closure of SEPAZ and other government institutions and called upon the legislature to legally protect sacred indigenous sites. At year’s end, the Constitutional Court had not issued a decision on the future of SEPAZ and the government had not clarified COLUSAG’s status.

In November, lawmakers proposed a budget that would cut funding for the national human rights office and other social programs. The proposal triggered widespread demonstrations, including one in which protesters set fire to Congress. The country’s Catholic bishops were among several civil society groups that urged President Giammattei to veto the budget bill and called for calm. Lawmakers withdrew the proposed budget after protests erupted throughout the country, and the proposed reductions were not enacted.

Mayan spiritual leaders affiliated with COLUSAG worked on a voluntary basis and were not paid by the government. They said the Ministry of Culture had a unit for sacred spaces tasked with mapping sites and producing informative material regarding Mayan spirituality; however, the Ministry of Culture had staffed the unit with only one individual. The Mayan spiritual representatives said their work of preserving sacred sites was more relevant than ever and needed more robust government support, including funding. COLUSAG leaders said they did not accept claims by some businesses and government bodies that Mayan spiritual leaders were seeking to retake ownership of ancestral spiritual properties. COLUSAG said its objectives were to negotiate a time for practitioners of Mayan spirituality to practice their religion on ancestral spiritual sites.

Some Mayan leaders said the government continued to limit their access to a number of religious sites on government-owned property and to require them to pay to access the sites. The government continued to state there were no limitations on access; however, anyone seeking access to the sites located in national parks or other protected areas had to pay processing or entrance fees. In Tikal, a complex of Mayan pyramids dating from 200 A.D., and one of the most sacred sites for Mayan spirituality, the access fee was approximately 20 to 30 quetzals ($3 to $4), which, according to members of COLUSAG, was prohibitive for many indigenous populations. The Mayan community of Chicoyoguito continued to petition for access to its sacred sites and the return of land, including its sacred ceremonial center and a spiritual site on a former military base.

Through its La Ruta: Meeting Between Peoples program, the government had increased engagement with 25 indigenous communities in the Western Highlands with high levels of outward migration. In September, President Giammattei relaunched the program, which sought to address development challenges in indigenous communities by increasing government services, dialogue, and understanding among indigenous leaders, the government, and the private sector. The La Ruta platform allowed indigenous leaders to raise concerns regarding future private sector investment on sacred sites in the Western Highlands with central government decision makers. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, some in-person La Ruta activities were delayed during the year, but there were several local meetings in indigenous communities, as well as high-level engagement in the capital.

Non-Catholic groups said some municipal authorities continued to discriminate against them in processing building permit approvals and in local tax collection. In November, representatives of a major non-Catholic church said authorities of some municipalities levied taxes on church properties, despite being legally exempt from taxation under the constitution and in accordance with a Supreme Court ruling. According to church representatives, in some cases, municipal authorities refused to issue building permits for construction or remodeling unless the taxes were first paid. Church representatives said they believed this inconsistent application of tax law likely stemmed from financial interests rather than discrimination based on religion.

Missionaries continued to report complicated government procedures required to apply for temporary residence. At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many foreign missionaries voluntarily exited the country. Although missionaries were legally allowed to stay in the country while their residency applications were being processed, some with pending applications faced fines for overstaying their tourist visas when they departed.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten Department, beat and burned to death Mayan spiritual leader and herbalist Domingo Choc after accusing him of using witchcraft to kill a man a few days before. Videos of the killing circulated on social media and public outrage grew quickly, with government and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) condemning the act. Commentators said a video of the incident appeared to show many villagers participating in Choc’s killing. On June 9, the PNC arrested several villagers, who awaited trial in Guatemala City at year’s end. According to media, following the killing, Choc’s family was forced to relocate to the nearby town of Poptun because of threats from local villagers.

According to Monica Berger, an anthropologist at Universidad del Valle, Choc was an Ajilonel, an indigenous spiritual guide and expert on medicinal plants. He was also a member of the Association of the Council of Spiritual Guides Releb’aal Saq’e’ and collaborated extensively with University College London, Zurich University, and Universidad del Valle to document traditional Mayan medicinal practices. Despite Choc’s international and national academic partnerships, local media and NGOs reported some San Luis residents routinely harassed him for his Mayan spiritual practices.

A coalition of four indigenous groups condemned the attack and demanded swift government action to bring the perpetrators to justice. Student groups and international organizations also condemned the killing on social media. Business organizations such as Ag Export issued statements expressing outrage. In its statement, Ag Export said Choc’s death left a great void in the country’s cultural wisdom, understanding of spirituality, and ancestral science. In a social media post referring to the killing, Berger wrote, “We demand justice and clarity about his murder. Even more importantly, we need to shine a light on this type of persecution against practitioners of Traditional Medicine and Mayan Spirituality in Guatemala. We need to raise awareness and educate ourselves as a society, so that we better understand other Guatemalans and stop fearing and persecuting each other. We must understand, recognize, and respect our own diversity.”

According to media, Peten Department’s mostly indigenous and overwhelmingly Christian population, reportedly split evenly between Catholics and evangelical Protestants, was not tolerant of Mayan spiritual traditions. Berger told media that the persecution of Mayan spiritual leaders was a troubling and underreported phenomenon, and she said most of the country’s inhabitants did not have a basic understanding of indigenous Mayan beliefs and ancestral traditions.

Some commentators said that while the Catholic Church played an active and important role in citizens’ lives and that half of San Luis was Catholic, Catholic Church leadership in the country was silent or cast doubt on the circumstances surrounding Choc’s killing. Some sources said San Luis Parish priest Aubert Gamende told Choc’s family to ask for forgiveness for bringing negative attention on the parish. The Catholic Bishop of Peten, Mario Fiandri, publicly denied that the killing reflected religious discrimination, and instead called it a feud between two families.

Mayan spiritual leaders reported an increase in violent acts and societal prejudice against their community following the killing. Joaquin Caal Che, a Mayan traditional healer also from San Luis, told media in June that local residents had threatened him and he feared for his life. Caal Che also relocated to Poptun with his family to escape further threats. Other instances of community violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners occurred during the year. On January 23, two individuals, one of whom was later identified and captured by police, shot Mayan traditional healer Jose Andres Lopez in the town of San Juan Atitan, Huehuetenango Department. According to the PNC, the two assailants may have shot Lopez because of curses the healer had placed on villagers. On June 12, PDH reported that villagers in Gancho Caoba, Alta Verapaz Department, accused traditional healer Jesus Caal of witchcraft and found him guilty in a community assembly, during which villagers threatened to burn Caal’s entire family. Villagers detained Caal and his family in their house overnight while the community assembly deliberated on his punishment for alleged witchcraft. PDH intervened, prompting PNC teams to deploy to the Caal residence to guarantee the family’s safety. On June 27, PDH reported four Mayan priests were attacked by residents of Aldea las Pozas, Peten Department, during a Mayan spiritual ceremony. The PNC intervened to negotiate their release from local residents and transported them to safety.

Some Catholic clergy continued to report threats and harassment against them because of their association with environmental protection and human rights work. According to reports from the Archbishop’s Office of Human Rights, at least five priests received serious threats during the year.

According to Mayan spiritual groups, some private landowners continued to deny Mayans access to locations on their property considered sacred, including caves, lagoons, mountains, and forests.

Religions for Peace (RFP), whose members comprise representatives from the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant churches, Muslim and Jewish faiths, and Mayan spirituality groups, continued to actively seek to resolve misunderstandings among religious groups and to promote a culture of respect. In June, RFP issued statements condemning the violence against Domingo Choc and other Mayan spiritual leaders. Some political organizations, including the Municipal Indigenous Council in Solola, rotated leadership between Catholic and Protestant representatives. Sentinels for the Dignification of the State, an interfaith group with members from the Tibetan Buddhist, Protestant, and secular communities, continued to promote progressive social activism and change, including working with Mayan spiritual leaders.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Embassy officials regularly met with the human rights ombudsman, officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Presidential Commission Against Discrimination and Racism, and members of Congress to discuss religious freedom issues, including threats against Catholic clergy and access for Mayans to their spiritual sites. The embassy continued to promote increased engagement between the government and indigenous communities, especially through its support for increased dialogue and government investment in indigenous communities through the La Ruta program.

The Ambassador released a statement condemning the June 6 killing of Domingo Choc, noting it was a tragic reminder of the pervasive violence that continued to impact indigenous peoples across the country. The Ambassador reiterated President Giammattei’s call to bring those responsible to justice. Embassy officials continued to engage government officials as well as Catholic Church officials and other religious leaders on the need to denounce violence against Mayan spiritual practitioners and members of all faiths.

Embassy officials met with leaders of major religious groups and representatives of faith-based NGOs to discuss the importance of tolerance and respect for religious minorities. They continued outreach to religious leaders and entities, including the offices of Catholic Archbishop Gonzalo de Valle in Guatemala City and of Cardinal Alvaro Ramazzini’s in Huehuetenango, as well as other Catholic organizations. Embassy officials also worked with the Evangelical Alliance, the largest organization of Protestant churches, representing more than 30,000 individual churches; the Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities; and representatives from the Commission for the Designation of Sacred Places for the Maya, Xinca, and Garifuna communities, to strengthen understanding of religious freedom issues and to promote religious tolerance.

Honduras

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations and thereby acquire tax-exempt status and other government benefits. Seventh-day Adventists continued to state some public educational institutions did not respect their religious observance on Saturdays because Saturdays were part of the official work week. On October 15, the Inter-Ecclesiastical Forum (FIH) – an interfaith nongovernmental organization (NGO) – reported government discrimination in residency applications for foreign missionaries. It stated the government did not approve or respond to applications of residency extensions for certain religious groups, while favoring others. According to Muslim leaders, members of their community no longer encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits, an improvement from previous years. The FIH reported the government granted safe-conduct permits for movement during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown from March to October only to religious organizations covered under the Evangelical Fellowship of Honduras (CEH). FIH representatives said many organizations not belonging to the CEH were limited in their social work because the government provided biosecurity equipment to only 10 FIH member organizations.

Muslim leaders reported one incident where individuals who self-identified as evangelical Protestants appeared at an Islamic community outreach event, making offensive remarks regarding their community. Representatives of the Muslim community said they conducted community events to promote religious freedom and tolerance, including discussion of issues such as common misconceptions of the tenets of Islam. The FIH also conducted community events to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The CEH reported its members received threatening messages from unknown individuals that they believed were in response to the CEH’s support of a government proposal to provide financial assistance to elderly evangelical Protestant pastors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Charge d’Affaires underscored with the Minister of Human Rights the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental right. U.S. embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, and the autonomous National Commission of Human Rights (CONADEH) to discuss issues of religious freedom, including the importance of respect for minority religious groups and for equal treatment under the law for all religious groups. On November 25, the Charge d’Affaires met with Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga, who described the Church’s disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of Hurricanes Eta and Iota. On October 28, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith roundtable to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Topics included religious freedom in schools, challenges some faith groups faced in addressing registration issues, societal violence, poverty reduction, and how the COVID-19 pandemic affected religious groups. Embassy officials continued to engage with religious leaders and other members of a wide range of religious communities regarding societal violence and their concerns about the government’s dealings with religious groups in the country.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 9.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to a CID Gallup poll released in May, 34 percent of the population identifies as Roman Catholic and 48 percent as evangelical Protestant. According to a 2017-18 Digital Christian Observatory survey, 92 percent of the population is affiliated with a religious organization, with 45 percent identifying as Roman Catholic and 40 percent as Protestant, including evangelical Protestant groups.

Other religious groups, each representing less than 5 percent of the population, include The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Episcopalians, Lutherans, the Antiochian Orthodox Apostolic Catholic Church, Muslims, Jews, Baha’is, the Moravian Church, and several Anabaptist and Mennonite groups. Evangelical Protestant churches include the Church of God, Assemblies of God, Abundant Life Church, Living Love Church, International Christian Center, and various Great Commission churches. Several evangelical Protestant churches have no denominational affiliation. The Moravian Church has a broad presence in the La Mosquitia Region in the eastern part of the country. Some indigenous groups and Afro-Hondurans practice African and Amerindian faiths or incorporate elements of Christianity, African, and Amerindian religions into syncretistic religious practices and beliefs.

According to a representative of the Seventh-day Adventist Association, there are 79,877 members. The Jehovah’s Witnesses community states there are 23,016 members. The Muslim community states it has 2,695 members, mostly Sunni; approximately 90 percent are converts. The Antioquia Orthodox Apostolic Catholic community has approximately 5,000 members. The Baha’i community counts 1,009 members. The Jewish community estimates it has 275 members.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for the free exercise of all religions as long as that exercise does not contravene other laws or public order. The constitution prohibits religious leaders from holding public office or making political statements. Religious organizations may register as legal entities classified as religious associations. Organizations seeking status as a legal entity must apply to the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization and provide information on their internal organization, bylaws, and goals. Approved organizations must submit annual financial and activity reports to the government to remain registered. They may apply to the Ministry of Finance to receive benefits, such as tax exemptions and customs duty waivers. Unregistered religious organizations do not receive tax-exempt status.

The official NGO registry office – the Directorate of Regulation, Registration, and Monitoring of Civil Associations (DRRSAC) – is located within the Secretariat of Governance, Justice, and Decentralization.

The constitution states public education is secular and allows for the establishment of private schools, including schools run by religious organizations. Public schools do not teach religion; however, private schools may include religion as part of the curriculum. Various religious organizations, including the Roman Catholic Church, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and evangelical Protestant churches, run schools. Parents have the right to choose the kind of education their children receive, including religious education. The government dictates a minimum standardized curriculum for all schools. Some private religiously-affiliated schools require participation in religious events to graduate.

The government is a party to the Ibero-American Convention on Young People’s Rights, which recognizes the right to conscientious objection to obligatory military service, including for religious reasons.

The government requires foreign missionaries to obtain entry and residence permits and mandates that a local institution or individual must sponsor a missionary’s application for residency and submit it to immigration authorities. The government has agreements with the CEH, the Church of Jesus Christ, and Seventh-day Adventists, among others, to facilitate entry and residence permits for their missionaries. Groups with which the government does not have written agreements are required to provide proof of employment and income for their missionaries.

Foreign religious workers may request residency for up to five years. To renew their residence permits, religious workers must submit proof of continued employment with the sponsoring religious group at least 30 days before their residency expires. According to the immigration law, individuals who “fraudulently exercise their religious profession or office or commit fraud against the health or religious beliefs of citizens of the country, or the national patrimony,” may be fined or face other legal consequences.

The criminal code protects clergy authorized to operate in the country from being required by the court or the Attorney General’s Office to testify regarding privileged information obtained in confidence during a religious confession. The law does not require vicars, bishops, and archbishops of the Roman Catholic Church and comparably ranked individuals from other legally recognized religious groups to appear in court if subpoenaed. They are required, however, to make a statement at a location of their choosing.

The official regulations for the penal system state that penitentiaries must guarantee the free exercise of religion without preference for one specific religion, as long as the kind of worship is not against the law or public order. Prisoners have access to religious counseling from leaders of their faith.

While the government authorizes clergy from all religious groups to conduct marriage ceremonies, it legally recognizes only civil marriages conducted with a lawyer authorized to perform marriage ceremonies.

The official work week is Monday to Saturday, with no exceptions for religious groups that celebrate Friday or Saturday as their Sabbath.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

Representatives of the Seventh-day Adventist Church continued to express concerns that some schools and other private and public institutions did not grant them leave to observe their Saturday Sabbath because Saturdays were part of the official work week. They cited specifically the Francisco Morazan National Pedagogical University and the Catholic University of San Pedro Sula. They noted the Supreme Court had ruled favorably in 2019 on a constitutional challenge that Adventist students filed in 2015 seeking alternatives to taking classes or exams on Saturdays, but these institutions did not uphold that ruling, nor did the government enforce it. Reportedly, students at both universities requested the institutions comply with the Supreme Court’s ruling. The Francisco Morazan University secretariat denied the request; the students appealed, and the appeal remained pending at year’s end. One student at the Catholic University submitted a formal petition to the university to comply with the court, but officials denied the petition. Other students said they decided not to pursue further recourse out of fear of additional discrimination and retaliation from their professors.

Some religious organizations, including the interfaith NGO FIH, said the government continued to give preference to religious groups belonging to the evangelical Protestant umbrella organization CEH. On October 15, the FIH reported government discrimination in residency applications for missionaries, noting the government did not approve or respond to applications of residency extensions for certain religious groups, while favoring applications from the CEH.

At year’s end, the DRRSAC registered 66 religious associations out of a total of 86 applications, compared with 120 registered in 2019. According to the DRRSAC, it did not deny any registration requests by religious associations during the year, but some applications continued to be under review through year’s end.

According to Muslim leaders, members of their community no longer encountered unnecessary bureaucratic and discriminatory barriers when requesting basic governmental services or permits, an improvement from previous years.

In October, the FIH reported the government granted safe-conduct permits for movement during the COVID-19 pandemic only to religious groups covered under the CEH, which represents 388 organizations. FIH representatives said many organizations not belonging to the CEH were limited in their social work because the government provided biosecurity equipment to only 10 FIH member organizations.

A representative of the Catholic Church said Catholic priests were not allowed to enter prisons during the pandemic to give COVID-19-related educational instruction or spiritual counseling. These prohibitions were extended to all religious groups and visitors. Prison authorities said visits, except for emergency situations, were not allowed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Muslim leaders reported one incident in which individuals who identified as evangelical Protestants appeared at an Islamic community outreach event in February, disrupting the event and making offensive remarks and disparaging comments about Muslims, such as “go back to your country.” Muslim leaders said the evangelical Protestants made threats, forcefully removed hijabs from women, and destroyed religious materials. According to the Muslim leaders, they did not file a complaint.

While Muslim community representatives said they continued to receive a few derogatory messages on social media, including “go back to your country,” the representatives emphasized they received far more positive and supportive comments than negative messages.

The CEH reported its members received threatening messages from unknown individuals seeking to discredit the organization because of its support of a government proposal to provide financial assistance to elderly evangelical Protestant pastors during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Seventh-day Adventists reported the continued refusal of certain private institutions, including places of employment and schools, to permit them to observe Saturday as their Sabbath.

Representatives of the FIH and the Muslim community each reported conducting community events and outreach to promote religious freedom and tolerance. The FIH, whose members included 94 religious and human rights entities, said it conducted five in-person meetings in January and October, and seven virtual meetings from May through September, as well as 12 additional media appearances. The Muslim community reported it held two in-person outreach events in February and March and two virtual meetings in June and August with other faith groups to deepen interfaith understanding; the events included discussions on common misconceptions about the tenets of Islam.

Cardinal Maradiaga said the Catholic Church provided relief efforts in the aftermath of the two hurricanes, including providing food and other essential items to individuals affected by the hurricanes, regardless of religious affiliation.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The Charge d’Affaires underscored with the Minister of Human Rights the importance of religious freedom as a fundamental right. Embassy officials met with officials of the Secretariat of Human Rights, the Secretariat of Foreign Relations, and CONADEH to discuss issues of religious freedom, including the importance of respect for minority religious groups and for equal treatment under the law for all religious groups.

Embassy officials continued discussions with religious leaders and members of religious communities, including Roman Catholics, CEH, FIH, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Jews, and Muslims, regarding societal violence, poverty, and the COVID-19 pandemic. On November 25, the Charge d’Affaires met with Cardinal Maradiaga to discuss the Roman Catholic Church’s disaster relief efforts in the aftermath of the two hurricanes and the impact of the pandemic.

On October 28, the Charge d’Affaires hosted an interfaith roundtable with religious leaders from the Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, Seventh-day Adventist, Muslim, and Baha’i communities to discuss religious freedom and tolerance. Participants also discussed the Adventists’ difficulties with schools and other private and public institutions that did not grant leave to Adventist students or employees to observe Saturday as their Sabbath and bureaucratic challenges other groups faced, such as cumbersome registration processes. In addition, participants exchanged ideas on societal violence, poverty reduction, and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on religious groups.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion; provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship; and states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” In June, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) approved the resolution “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Nicaragua” in which the organization expressed concern regarding government restrictions on public spaces and repression of civil society, human rights defenders, and religious leaders, among others expressing critical views of the government. In an August report, the Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights (CENIDH) wrote, “In 2020 the government’s hatred of the Catholic Church has not stopped; on the contrary, it worsens every day, having reached critical levels.” There were numerous reports that the Nicaraguan National Police (NNP), along with progovernment groups and ruling party (Sandinista National Liberation Front, or FSLN) members routinely harassed and intimidated religious leaders and damaged religious spaces, including a July arson attack on the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua that destroyed a 382-year-old image of Jesus Christ. Catholic leaders reported verbal insults, death threats, and institutional harassment by the NNP and groups associated with President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo. According to clergy, the NNP and progovernment groups on several occasions harassed Catholic worshippers after they attended church services in which they prayed for political prisoners, and they blocked parishioners’ efforts to raise funds for families of political prisoners. Progovernment supporters disrupted religious services by staging motorcycle races outside of churches during Sunday services. Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders who provided shelter and medical assistance to peaceful protesters in 2018 continued to experience government retribution, including slander, arbitrary investigations by government agencies, charges they said were unfounded, withholding of tax exemptions, reduction in budget appropriations, and denying religious services for political prisoners, according to local media. The government ordered electric and water companies to cut services to Catholic churches led by priests opposed to the government, revoked the visas of at least two foreign priests after they criticized the government, and denied or revoked the permits of schools and clinics run by antigovernment Catholic bishops. Government supporters interrupted funerals and desecrated gravesites of prodemocracy protesters. In June, Italian media reported that the Russian woman arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned for throwing sulfuric acid in 2018 on a priest of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua was living in Italy as a refugee. CENIDH wrote in a report on attacks on Catholic churches in 2019 and 2020, “This case reflects the corrupt and fallacious way in which the Ortega Murillo regime permits impunity against those they consider ‘their political or public enemies,’ crimes that they themselves perversely orchestrate.”

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Senior U.S. government officials repeatedly called upon the Ortega government to cease violence against and attacks on Catholic clergy, worshippers, and churches. U.S. embassy officials continued to raise concerns with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials regarding restrictions on religious freedom in the context of broader repression. Following the arson attack on the Managua cathedral, the Ambassador condemned the attack in a public statement posted on social media and said attacks on the Church and worshippers should cease immediately and the culprits punished. Embassy officials met regularly with a wide variety of religious leaders from the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, Muslim groups, and the Jewish community to discuss restrictions on religious freedom and to foster religious tolerance.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Nicaragua on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 6.2 million (midyear 2020 estimate). According to the 2005 census (the most recent available), conducted by the Nicaraguan Institute of Statistics and Census, 59 percent of the population is Catholic and 22 percent evangelical Protestant, including Pentecostals, Mennonites, Moravian Lutherans, and Baptists. According to a survey conducted in July 2019 by Borge and Associates, the percentage of evangelical Protestants is increasing and the percentage of Catholics decreasing. Borge and Associates found Catholics make up 43 percent of the population, evangelical Protestants 41 percent, and religious believers without affiliation 14 percent. According to the Borge survey, groups that together constitute less than 2 percent of the population include Jehovah’s Witnesses, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Moravian Lutheran Church, Jews, Muslims, and nonbelievers.

The Moravian Lutheran Church is largely concentrated in the country’s North and South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Regions. A majority of its members are of indigenous or Afro-Caribbean descent.

Section II. Status of Government Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on religion. It provides for freedom of belief, religion, and worship, and it states no one “shall be obligated by coercive measures to declare his or her ideology or beliefs.” The constitution states there is no official religion; however, the law entrusts government-controlled, community-level action groups, known as Family Committees, with the responsibility for promoting “Christian values” at the community level.

The requirements for registration of religious groups – except for the Catholic Church, which has a concordat with the government – are similar to those for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). Registration requires an application, articles of association, and designation of officers. The National Assembly must approve a group’s application for registration or legal standing. Following approval, the group must register with the Ministry of Government as an association or NGO, which allows it to incur legal obligations, enter into contracts, and benefit from tax and customs exemptions. Following registration, religious groups are subject to the same regulations as other NGOs or associations, regardless of their religious nature. The Catholic Church is not required to register as a religious group because its presence in the country predates the legislation; however, the government requires organizations dedicated to charity or other social work affiliated with the Catholic Church to register.

According to the Foreign Agents Law, passed in October, organizations and persons receiving resources of foreign origin must not participate in internal politics. If the government finds any person or entity in violation of the law, the person or entity could be fined, imprisoned, or have their assets frozen or confiscated. The law excludes accredited religious organizations from the requirement to register with the Ministry of Interior. By law, those receiving exemptions may not participate in activities that would interfere in the country’s affairs.

Ministry of Education regulations for primary school education establish that the basis for the methodology and curriculum for elementary grade levels are the “Christian, Socialist, Solidarity” principles and “Human Development” policy. The government’s 2018-2021 Human Development policy establishes the promotion of religious and faith-based festivities as a key component of all government policy. The law establishes education in the country as secular but recognizes the right of private schools to be religiously oriented.

Missionaries must obtain religious worker visas and provide information regarding the nature of their missionary work before the Ministry of Interior will authorize entry into the country. A locally based religious organization must provide documentation and request travel authorization from the Ministry of Government seven days prior to the arrival of the visiting person or religious group. The process generally takes several weeks to complete.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Government Practices

In June, the UNHRC approved the resolution entitled “Promotion and Protection of Human Rights in Nicaragua,” in which the organization expressed concern regarding government restrictions on public spaces and repression of civil society, human rights defenders, and religious leaders, among others expressing critical views of the government. In her February remarks to the UNHRC, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Michelle Bachelet said that protests held during religious celebrations had been met with state-sponsored violence, and “members of the Catholic Church continue to suffer repeated acts of intimidation and harassment by police or pro-government elements, including stigmatizing statements by government authorities.” In a report released in July, CENIDH wrote, “In 2020 the government’s hatred of the Catholic Church has not stopped; on the contrary, it worsens every day, having reached critical levels.” According to the report, the Catholic Church had positioned itself firmly on the side of prodemocracy groups since the 2018 protest against the government and the government’s subsequent repression that killed more than 300 persons.

Witnesses told independent media that on July 31, an unidentified man threw a gasoline bomb inside a side chapel in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua after examining the perimeter closely for 20 minutes. The bomb caused an extensive fire that damaged the chapel and burned a 382-year-old image of Jesus Christ revered by the Catholic community. Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes, the Archbishop of Managua, publicly called the act a premeditated terrorist attack. Hours after the attack, Vice President Murillo told media the fire had been an accident caused by candle fire inside the chapel. Cardinal Brenes publicly stated there were no curtains or candles inside the chapel. Pope Francis also referred to the fire as an attack, stating, “I am thinking about the people of Nicaragua who are suffering due to the attack on the cathedral of Managua.” Days later, police closed the investigation and concluded the fire started as a result of vapor from disinfectant alcohol ignited by a candle. Police made no arrests. Clergy said they suspected the government directed attacks on churches and priests, but they believed the government was able to claim plausible deniability because the attacks were carried out by individuals not directly affiliated with it.

Clergy also said they believed the government directed or encouraged the vandalism and desecration of churches by individuals not directly affiliated with it. According to local media, unidentified individuals on July 29 broke into the Church of Saint Ana in Nindiri, entering the church after hours, stealing religious items, breaking sacred images, stepping on communion wafers, damaging furniture, and defecating in several places inside the church. On July 30, similar actions occurred in Nindiri at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. On July 24, unidentified individuals broke into the Church of Our Lady of Veracruz and damaged sacred items and stole audio equipment. CENIDH recorded several desecrations of Catholic churches following a similar modus operandi. On January 2, unidentified perpetrators destroyed sacred images in Our Lord of Esquipulas Church in Tipitapa; on July 12, an unidentified man entered a chapel inside the Saint John the Baptist Cathedral in Jinotega and stole a sacred image. According to media, desecrations of churches also occurred in Managua in April and in Boaco in August.

According to the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, police officers and patrol vehicles surrounded the Saint John the Baptist Church in Masaya on January 23, after parishioners organized a drive to collect school supplies for children of political prisoners. Police then prevented individuals with donations from accessing the church.

According to clergy, Father Edwing Roman, a priest granted precautionary (protective) measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights since 2018, continued to be a victim of harassment and received multiple death threats during the year. The government cut electricity and water supplies to his church in Masaya during a November 2019 hunger strike inside the church by relatives of political prisoners. Although the government restored electricity and water services in January, Roman reported continual struggles throughout the year with government authorities threatening to cut off his utilities despite being current on his payments. On October 23, Cardinal Brenes told media that Catholic churches around the country struggled to pay “exaggerated charges” in their electric and water bills. Brenes questioned the charges, particularly considering churches did not conduct services or activities for many months during COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

According to media, on December 20, police blocked a group of relatives of political prisoners from attending Mass at the Saint Joseph Church in Tipitapa. The Mass was for political prisoners and in memory of citizens killed during the civil protests of April 2018 in that city.

According to media reports, police on December 12-13 closed all access streets to Saint Joseph’s Church in Managua to prevent churchgoers and others from bringing donations for the communities on the Caribbean coast, which suffered two hurricanes within weeks of each other.

The Catholic Church continued to speak out against violence perpetrated by the government and progovernment groups and the lack of democratic institutions through clergy homilies and pastoral letters, calling for respect of human rights and the release of political prisoners, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic. According to social media reports, on December 10, the Managua Archdiocese’s Peace and Justice Commission issued a message that “Nicaraguans’ struggles for peace, justice, freedom, and joy are infringed upon due to corruption, repression, and the violation of human rights.” On June 30, the Archdiocese of Managua issued a letter in which it condemned the government’s persecution of medical professionals, including firing medical staff for sharing information on COVID-19 contrary to the government’s claims of low transmission and death rates.

When the Catholic Church announced the suspension of all religious activities in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government organized and sponsored the annual pilgrimage to Rivas and the annual celebration of Saint Lazarus in Masaya in March, both of which garnered massive crowds. The Diocese of Granada, which traditionally sponsored the pilgrimage to Rivas, issued a statement through its Facebook page, stating the March 26 processions were not sponsored by any of the churches in the diocese.

According to news reports, Monsignor Rolando Alvarez announced in April the opening of medical clinics in Matagalpa for COVID-19 patients and a call center to provide medical information to the public. Days after Alvarez’s announcement, the Ministry of Health announced it did not authorize the initiative. Alvarez reported constant government harassment throughout the year. In September, Bishop Abelardo Mata of Esteli reported the government shut down an agricultural school for low-income students sponsored by his diocese. Mata, an outspoken critic of the Ortega government for years, stated the government had tried to harass students and school management and disrupt the school’s operations since 2013. Mata said the Esteli Diocese had been considering opening a second technical school, but the government also thwarted those efforts. Monsignor Silvio Fonseca reported in October that the government refused to renew operational permits requested by several priest-directed NGOs, despite the NGOs meeting all legal requirements for renewal.

During the year, sources provided different estimates regarding how many clergy remained in exile and how many returned. They did not provide details, stating fear that the government could retaliate against returning clergy. In April, a news outlet interviewed three priests who went into exile in 2018 after receiving death threats from government supporters. One of the priests interviewed returned from exile and said he remained in hiding due to fear for his life. The other two priests continued in exile. The news report stated there were five priests who were forced to leave the country after 2018. In September, the Nicaraguan Immigration Office (NIO) revoked the permanent resident status of two foreign priests: Father Julio Melgar of El Salvador, who had served in the country for 40 years, and Father Luis Carrillo, of Colombia, who had served in the country for nine years. Melgar’s residence permit was due for renewal in 2024 and Carrillo’s in 2022. The NIO verbally notified both priests their residence permits had been revoked and the priests would need to reapply frequently: Carillo every six months and Melgar every month. Bishop Mata told media that the government’s actions toward Carillo and Melgar were designed to put pressure on the priests to either leave the country or cease denouncing the government’s human rights abuses during their homilies. Carrillo said the measure also imposed a financial burden because renewal processing fees ranged between 7,000 to 17,500 cordobas ($200 to $500), up from 5,000 cordobas ($140) in 2019.

In speeches during the year, President Ortega criticized Catholic clergy, typically linking clergy to what he characterized as U.S. intervention in the country’s sovereignty. In a September speech, Ortega cited U.S. citizen William Walker, who usurped the presidency of Nicaragua from July 1856 until May 1, 1857, to criticize the United States and the Catholic Church. Ortega identified Walker’s ambassador to the United States as a Catholic priest.

Religious groups said the government continued to politicize religious beliefs, language, and traditions, including by coopting religion for its own political purposes. Auxiliary Bishop of Managua Silvio Baez, termed by multiple press outlets, including La Prensa and Reuters, as one of the most outspoken critics of government human rights abuses, told Deutsche Welle in September that “what exists in Nicaragua is a crude manipulation of religion by the regime. It empties religion of all ethical content, of all content that demands personal conviction and social justice.” Baez continued to live abroad in exile due to constant harassment and death threats against him since April 2018. Religious groups also said that as a form of retaliation stemming from the country’s sociopolitical crisis that began in April 2018, the government continued to infringe on religious leaders’ rights to practice faith-based activities, including providing safe spaces in churches to students and others fleeing violence. Catholic clergy and media reported cases of government officials slandering, stigmatizing, and urging supporters to retaliate against houses of worship and clergy for their perceived opposition to the government.

In August, a well-known government social media coordinator posted a video from his personal account in which he stated the U.S. Ambassador had made a pact with the country’s Catholic Church to oust the ruling FSLN from government. The man named several bishops, calling them “trash” and “Satanists that only seek chaos in the country.” He urged progovernment supporters to prepare to retaliate for any attempts made by the Catholic Church in the country and the U.S. government to overthrow the government. Another government supporter and son of FSLN National Assembly member Gladys Baez used social media to threaten Catholic Church bishops, posting, “Patience has its limits,” and, “We don’t depend on a church, we are a secular country, not subordinate to a church, you coup-mongering priests are the primary promotors of the destruction of Nicaragua.”

With an economic crisis that sources stated was precipitated by the government’s violent suppression of prodemocracy protests in 2018, the national budget continued to shrink substantially. Although the constitution established the country as a secular state, the national budget since the 1990s included funding for Catholic and Protestant churches. Following dramatically decreased funding in 2019, the government’s 2020 and 2021 budgets omitted entirely funding for both Catholic and Protestant churches and religious groups. Local media viewed this as retribution for religious leaders’ outspoken opposition to the government, particularly among Catholic clergy.

In September, during the religious service for the burial of a young man, Bryan Coronado, a woman identified as a government supporter attended the burial uninvited and shouted obscenities at the deceased for not being a government supporter and chanted pro-Ortega slogans. During the March 3 funeral of renowned poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal in the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua, a group of progovernment supporters with FSLN kerchiefs interrupted the service with banners and slogans that local human rights organizations said were used regularly by the government and its supporters against those they perceived as enemies.

Catholic clergy continued to report the government denied them access to prisons following the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. Prior to April 2018, clergy said they regularly entered prisons to celebrate Mass and provide communion and confession to detainees. Religious sources reported a large presence of NNP officers and police vehicles frequently surrounded Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua. Sources stated the officers intimidated worshippers and searched vehicles entering the cathedral grounds without cause, including vehicles driven by clergy.

According to press, human rights organizations, and social media reports, Catholic Church leaders throughout the country continued to experience harassment from government supporters, who often acted in tandem with police. Other Catholic leaders privately said they felt fear and intimidation when celebrating Mass. Priests said they often saw progovernment civilians attempt to intimidate them into public silence on political issues by recording their Sunday homilies. In October, a group of motorcyclists started a race in front of the Saint Peter’s Cathedral in Matagalpa, interrupting the regular Sunday service. The activity received authorization from the Matagalpa City Hall and police. In July, a similar group of motorcyclists intimidated worshippers at the same cathedral during a Sunday Mass. On the same day, a group of individuals in the city of Leon intimidated worshippers at the Basilica of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, stopping the Mass. The group chanted loudly and placed FSLN flags in the church atrium.

Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders said the government continued to restrict travel selectively for some visa applicants intending to visit the country for religious purposes based on the perceived political affiliation of the applicant’s local sponsor. According to Catholic clergy, a 2016 regulation instructing all churches to request entry authorization for their missionaries or religious authorities continued in effect.

In October, Monsignor Carlos Mantica told Voice of America prior to the approval of the law on registering foreign agents that the Catholic Church worried the law could endanger donations that Caritas, a Catholic NGO, received. He said that since 2018, Caritas had experienced delays in its operations due to the government’s refusal to issue Caritas’s annual operation permits and tax exemption approvals, which enabled it to receive items donated from abroad.

Bishop Carlos Herrera, President of Caritas of Nicaragua, told media in April that the government continued to deny Caritas its legally entitled tax exemptions. Herrera said the organization informed donors to stop sending donations because Caritas was unable to retrieve them from Customs. In December 2019, Customs released one of Caritas’ 13 containers retained since April 2018 with no explanation for the delay. Customs officials said the remaining 12 containers were lost without explanation. Caritas said the containers held donations of medical equipment and educational and health material intended for its social work. Caritas continued to report that the organization, accredited in the country since 1965, had since March 2018 not received its annually renewable certificate from the Ministry of Interior, which technically gave it permission to operate in the country. Caritas representatives continued to say the failure to renew the certificate impeded it from receiving tax exemptions, prohibited the importation of its materials, and hindered its ability to bring in medical missions as part of its social services. They stated they continued to reduce their social services because of harassment from government supporters in the communities where they worked.

According to Italian media, the Russian female national who fled Nicaragua in 2019 after a court found her guilty of throwing sulfuric acid at a priest of the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua in 2018 was living in Italy as a refugee. The Sixth Criminal Court of Justice sentenced the woman to eight years in prison in May 2019, but in August 2019, media reported witnesses seeing the woman on a flight to Panama. In the same month, the Supreme Court of Justice’s spokesperson denied to a newspaper reporter that the attacker had been freed and said the testimony of witnesses stating to have seen her on a flight to Panama was false. CENIDH wrote in its report Attack on the Catholic Church in Nicaragua 2019-2020, released in July, that “this case reflects the corrupt and fallacious way in which the Ortega Murillo regime permits impunity [when acts are committed] against those they consider ‘their political or public enemies,’ crimes that they themselves perversely orchestrate.”

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

There were no reports of significant societal actions affecting religious freedom.

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

Through public statements and official social media accounts, senior U.S. government leaders and embassy officials repeatedly called on the government to cease violence and attacks on the Catholic Church and expressed the U.S. government’s support for faith communities in their fight for human rights, democracy, and freedom. For example, in the aftermath of the arson attack on the Immaculate Conception Cathedral in Managua, the Ambassador condemned the attack in a public statement posted on social media and urged all attacks against the Catholic Church and worshippers to cease immediately. Embassy officials continued to raise concerns over restrictions on religious freedom in the context of broader repression with Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials.

The Ambassador and his staff met regularly with senior religious leaders of the Catholic Church, evangelical Protestant groups, the Moravian Lutheran Church, the Nicaraguan Islamic Association, and the Jewish community. At these meetings, embassy representatives discussed concerns about the politicization of religion, governmental retaliation against politically active religious groups, and limitations on the freedom of religion and fostering diversity and tolerance.

On December 2, 2020, in accordance with the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, as amended, the Secretary of State again placed Nicaragua on the Special Watch List for having engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Venezuela

Executive Summary

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition its practice does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. Representatives of the conference of Catholic bishops, officially known as the Catholic Episcopal Conference of Venezuela (CEV), and the Evangelical Council of Venezuela (ECV) said clergy and other members of their religious communities were harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. In April, officers of the Bolivarian National Guard (GNB) detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State. Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant leaders stated the Maduro regime and its aligned groups disrupted church services, attacked churchgoers, and destroyed church property. Media reported nonstate armed groups (NSAGs), called colectivos, aligned with Nicolas Maduro continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, a group of Maduro-aligned colectivos led by regime-controlled security forces assaulted teachers attending Mass prior to a planned protest in Caracas, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Church leaders reported Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN) officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. There were reports that regime officials continued to prevent clergy opposing Maduro from holding religious services. According to media reports and other sources, throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. Editorials in pro-Maduro media outlets continued to accuse interim President Juan Guaido and other interim government officials as agents or lobbyists of Zionism. Representatives of the Confederation of Jewish Associations of Venezuela (CAIV) said criticism of Israel in Maduro-controlled or -affiliated media continued to carry anti-Semitic overtones, sometimes disguised as anti-Zionist messages. They said Maduro-controlled or -associated media and supporters again denied or trivialized the Holocaust and promoted conspiracy theories linking Israel and Jews to the COVID-19 pandemic.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and other social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. Representatives said the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law.

During the year, the VAU continued to engage with the Guaido-led interim government. The VAU also continued to maintain close contact with a wide range of religious groups, including the Jewish, Muslim, evangelical Protestant, and Catholic communities. VAU representatives and members of these groups discussed repression and attacks on religious communities committed by the Maduro regime; harassment by the regime’s aligned and armed civilian gangs; and anti-Semitic posts in social media and in regime-controlled media.

Section I. Religious Demography

The U.S. government estimates the total population at 28.6 million (midyear 2020 estimate), compared with 32.1 million in the 2019 midyear estimate – a decrease attributable to the outmigration of millions of Venezuelans. The U.S. government estimates 96 percent of the population is Catholic. The remaining population includes evangelical Protestants, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Church of Jesus Christ), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Muslims, Baha’is, and Jews. Observers estimate as much as 30 percent of the population follows practices of Afro-descendant religions Santeria and Espiritismo, some of which also influence Catholic practices in the country, including in Catholic Church music and festivals.

The ECV estimates 18 percent of the population is Protestant, the majority of whom are members of evangelical Protestant churches. The Church of Jesus Christ estimates its numbers at 168,500. The Muslim community numbers more than 100,000 and consists primarily of persons of Lebanese and Syrian descent living in Nueva Esparta State and the Caracas metropolitan area. Sunnis are the majority, with a minority Shia community primarily in Margarita Island in Nueva Esparta State. According to the Baha’i community, its membership is approximately 5,000. According to CAIV, the Jewish community numbers approximately 6,000, with most members living in Caracas. Media estimate there are 5,000 Jews, compared with 30,000 in 1999.

Section II. Status of “Government” Respect for Religious Freedom

Legal Framework

The constitution provides for freedom of religion on the condition that the practice of a religion does not violate public morality, decency, or public order. A 1964 concordat governs relations between the government and the Holy See and provides for government funding for Catholic Church-run schools. In 2017, the National Constituent Assembly (ANC), which the National Assembly, democratically elected in 2015, and the Guaido-led interim government and much of the international community consider illegitimate, passed an anti-hate law criminalizing acts of incitement to hatred or violence. Individuals who violate the law face 10 to 20 years in prison. The law includes 25 articles stipulating a wide array of directives, restrictions, and penalties. The law criminalizes political party activities promoting “fascism, intolerance, or hatred,” which comprise numerous factors, including religion. It also criminalizes individual acts promoting violence or hatred, the publication or transmission of any messages promoting violence or hatred by any media outlet, and the publication of messages promoting violence or hatred on social media. Among the violations are those committed by individuals or media outlets, including by members of religious groups or media associated with a religious group.

The Directorate of Justice and Religion (DJR) in the Maduro-controlled Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace (MOI) maintains a registry of religious groups, disburses funds to religious organizations, and promotes awareness and understanding among religious communities. Each religious group must register with the DJR to acquire legal status as a religious organization. Registration requires declaration of property belonging to the religious group, identification of any religious authorities working directly for it, and articles of incorporation. Religious groups are required to demonstrate how they will provide social services to their communities and to receive a letter of acceptance from the regime-controlled community council in the neighborhood(s) where the group will work. The MOI reviews applications and may delay approval indefinitely. Religious groups must register any new statutes with the DJR.

The law neither prohibits nor promotes religious education in public schools. An 18-year-old agreement between the CEV and the state allows catechists to teach Christian and sacramental values in public schools in preparation for First Communion; this agreement, however, is not enforced.

The law provides for Catholic chaplains to minister to the spiritual needs of Catholics serving in the military. There are no similar provisions for other religious groups.

The country is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. “Government” Practices

“Government” Practices

CEV and ECV representatives said the Maduro regime harassed, intimidated, and retaliated against their clergy and other members of their religious communities for continuing to call attention to the country’s humanitarian crisis. On April 8, GNB officers detained Father Geronimo Sifontes, coordinator of the Catholic NGO Caritas, in Monagas State on the grounds that he lacked permission to hold a public gathering under COVID-19 quarantine restrictions. Sifontes installed an improvised altar in front of the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church, which included a cross and a tattered Venezuelan flag. Sifontes then led a procession, remaining in his vehicle the entire time, with a statue of Jesus bearing the cross atop his car through the streets of Las Cocuizas, Monagas State. Parishioners denounced Sifontes’ detention as illegal and arbitrary. Sifontes was released later the same day.

Media reported that NSAGs aligned with the Maduro regime continued to attack churches and their congregants during the year. On January 15, members of the teachers union gathered at the Cathedral of Caracas for Mass prior to a protest against Maduro. Colectivos attacked the teachers in the church, launching bottles, urine, and feces at them. Teachers and journalists covering the protest reported the colectivos involved in the attack were led by members of the GNB. According to sources, on February 11, members of a colectivo linked to the regime attacked a Catholic soup kitchen and health services clinic in Los Teques, Miranda State. The armed and masked colectivos threatened the occupants, robbed them of their valuables, and beat the soup kitchen’s coordinator so severely she was hospitalized.

There were reports that Maduro representatives continued to prevent clergy opposing the regime from holding religious services. On October 5, the mayor of Barbacoas, in Aragua State, closed down and fired the staff of Catholic radio station The Singing Revolutionary. The station director’s son, Anthony Gonzalez, previously a seminarian at a local seminary, led a religious service on October 4, during which he criticized Maduro for the lack of ambulances, biosafety equipment, and supplies at medical centers needed to transport and treat COVID-19 patients as well as combat the disease.

Church leaders reported SEBIN officials continued to intimidate priests who criticized Maduro in their sermons. The leaders said SEBIN officers followed and harassed Catholic laity involved in delivering humanitarian aid or participating in public demonstrations and photographed their homes.

According to media reports and other sources, throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime attempted to discredit religious organizations for criticizing the regime. In a January 14 homily, Bishop Victor Hugo Basabe – Bishop of the Diocese of San Felipe and Apostolic Administrator of the Archdiocese of Barquisimeto – denounced what he called the abuse of power and use of force against the population. Later the same day, Maduro responded to Basabe’s remarks in his annual address to the ANC, in which he accused Basabe of using the homily to manipulate faith for “retrograde, reactionary, and right-wing politics,” and he demanded bishops not conduct politics from the pulpit.

During a July 27 television broadcast, Maduro called on the Catholic Church to use its churches and other places of worship, closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, to house Venezuelans returning from abroad who had contracted COVID. The CEV responded that church facilities, while engaged in the distribution of medicine and humanitarian aid, lacked the necessary equipment and medical infrastructure to provide lifesaving care to COVID patients. CEV representatives stated that Maduro’s demand was an attempt to deflect criticism from his mistreatment of Venezuelans afflicted by the virus. Mariano Parra Sandoval, Archbishop of Coro, Falcon State, suggested Maduro use military installations instead of churches because the former were better equipped to care for COVID-19 patients. According to humanitarian aid organizations, the Maduro regime instead forcibly detained returning COVID-positive Venezuelans in makeshift camps under terrible conditions.

Media reported the Maduro regime regularly accused Catholic laity of being “perverts” and perpetrators of pedophilia who acted with the complicity of Church leadership. On January 22, then-Interior Minister Nestor Reverol, an active-duty National Guard general who later became Minister of Electrical Energy, stated, “Instead of devoting themselves to politics, Catholic authorities should focus on removing priests who engage in these aberrant activities.” He cited the case of Father Jesus Manuel Rondon Molina, of Rubio, Tachira State, killed on January 16 by an individual who said the priest had sexually abused him. On January 20, the CEV issued a statement denying the Church had attempted to cover up abuse allegations and stating the Church had initiated an investigation of Rondon Molina and prohibited him from meeting with minors.

According to media, on March 29, colectivos spray-painted words threatening to attack “the damned opposition” on the walls of the Saint Catalina Church in Carupano, Sucre State, signing the messages with “Bolivarian Fury.” Colectivos adopted the phrase from a March 26 speech by Maduro to launch an intimidation campaign against perceived opponents.

CAIV representatives said Maduro regime representatives continued to believe members of the Jewish community maintained direct lines of communication with the White House and that the community placed U.S. interests above those of the country. According to the Anti-defamation League (ADL), most anti-Semitic messaging on social media and other media continued to originate from Maduro and his supporters. Some members of the Jewish community stated the regime and those sympathetic to it, including some media outlets, used anti-Zionism to mask anti-Semitism, saying they avoided accusations of anti-Semitism by replacing the word “Jewish” with “Zionist.” During the year, editorials in state-owned and pro-Maduro media outlets accused Guaido and Guaido-nominated representatives of being agents or lobbyists for Zionism. During a September 2 television broadcast, ANC president Diosdado Cabello called opposition politician David Smolansky “an agent of Zionism, the most murderous of Zionist assassins.”

Regime-controlled news media and regime-friendly social media posts circulated theories that linked the COVID-19 pandemic to Israel and Jews. In a May 15 social media post, Basem Tajeldine, an analyst for state-owned media outlet TeleSur, characterized Israel as a virus, calling the “IsraHell virus as much of a killer as COVID-19, eating the lungs of the Palestinian people from the 1947 Nakba to today.”

Members of the Maduro regime continued to trivialize or deny the Holocaust. On June 12, the Maduro-controlled Supreme Court appointed Luis Fuenmayor Toro, known for his statements questioning the existence of the Holocaust, to the National Electoral Council.

On October 19, the CEV released a pastoral letter, “On the social, economic, moral and political situation of the country,” that stated “both the ruling party and the opposition do not present a project for the country that is able to bring together and convince the majority of the Venezuelan people to live in justice, freedom and peace” and that called for “a change of attitude in all the political leaders.” According to the CEV letter, and in reference to what it termed the fraudulent December 6 legislative elections, “The electoral event scheduled for next December 6, far from contributing to the democratic solution of the political situation we are experiencing today, tends to worsen it,” and, “It is immoral to hold elections when people suffer the consequences of the pandemic, lack the minimum conditions necessary for their survival, and there are no transparent rules and verification mechanisms that should characterize an electoral process.”

In response to the creation in April of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council by religious groups not associated with Maduro, the regime created its own National Religious Council that included representatives of the Muslim, Jewish, evangelical Protestant, and Afro-descendant communities, as well as the Anglican and Russian Orthodox Churches. Observers criticized the move as an attempt to politicize religious communities and create the appearance of support for the Maduro regime.

Throughout the year, members of the Maduro regime met with the Evangelical Christian Movement for Venezuela (MOCEV), a pro-Maduro organization. Leaders of the Evangelical and Baptist Churches said members of MOCEV were unknown to them and did not speak for their religious communities. ECV Vice President Jose Pinero said he believed MOCEV may have received benefits from the regime in exchange for its political support.

The Evangelical Theological University of Venezuela, whose foundation Maduro announced in December 2019, had not opened by year’s end. Members of the Catholic and Evangelical communities rejected the initiative, stating it was an attempt to “buy their conscience,” and they voiced concern that any such institution would demonstrate an ideological bent in favor of the Maduro. On February 13, Jose Vielma Mora, Maduro’s Vice President for Religious Affairs, called for the creation of religious workshops and educational programs at universities to build religious tolerance. Observers criticized the announcement as “political interference” and an attack on the independence of the religious and university sectors. Student leaders pointed out the impracticality of such programs, given the regime’s refusal to fund university budgets, combined with the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which, they said, limited the ability of universities to hold classes of any type.

Section III. Status of Societal Respect for Religious Freedom

Articles published on the online newspaper Aporrea stated COVID-19 was a biological weapon developed by Israel, and that Zionists used the pandemic to destabilize the country and foment a coup against Maduro.

On April 22, representatives of the CEV, ECV, Seventh-day Adventist Church, Anglican Church, Jewish community, and other religious groups and social organizations announced the creation of the Venezuelan Interreligious Social Council. According to its founding members, the purpose of the council was to build consensus and dialogue based on respect for human rights, democratic institutions, and the rule of law. Auxiliary Bishop of Caracas and CEV Secretary General Jose Trinidad Fernandez said the council was “a structure of reflection and action based on plurality, whose contribution will generate consensus to mitigate the serious problems that our society is experiencing.”

Section IV. U.S. Government Policy and Engagement

The United States continues to recognize the authority of the democratically elected 2015 National Assembly and of Juan Guaido as the interim President of Venezuela and does not recognize the Maduro regime as a government. In 2019, the Department of State announced the temporary suspension of operations of the U.S. Embassy in Caracas and the withdrawal of diplomatic personnel and announced the opening of the VAU, located at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia. The VAU is the U.S. mission to Venezuela, which continues engagement with the Government of Venezuela and outreach to the Venezuelan people. During the year, the VAU maintained close contact with the Guaido-led interim government to discuss actions by the Maduro regime that infringe upon religious freedom and other human rights.

VAU officials communicated regularly with a wide range of religious communities and leaders in the country to discuss the treatment of religious groups, anti-Semitic rhetoric by the Maduro regime and its supporters, and reprisals on some faith groups that disagree with Maduro’s political agenda. In conversations with embassy officials, religious leaders expressed their concern that the continued presence of the Maduro regime would only further the political, economic and humanitarian crisis in the country, and that criticism of Maduro would increase hostility towards faith communities. VAU officials held meetings with representatives from the CEV, ECV, CAIV, and the Muslim community. Each community expressed interest in maintaining communications and exploring possible outreach programs in the future. The VAU also communicated the value of religious freedom in interviews with media outlets and on digital media.

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